John Gray on Dawkins et al.

Awhile back, the atheist blogosphere briefly noticed a Guardian article by John Gray, former “Professor of European Thought,” trashing Dawkins et al. Since now I’m reviewing Dawkins’ fleas, I decided that I’d take a look at his book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, and review it here. I’m focusing in on the last chapter, which is supposed to deal with secularism, with some comments on the Guardian article thrown in.

Like Chris Hedges, Gray is intent on attributing to the New Atheists a simplistic Utopianism, and cites no basis for this accusation. This is just a preliminary note on something very odd, though, I have nothing to say about it for now, though I will look at his responses to their more nuanced statements.

Gray’s next major line is that atheists are indebted to Christianity for the idea of free will, something that appears both in the article and the book (pp. 188-189). Some of this is giggle-inducing historical ignorance: he cites the Genesis story (I think he means the forbidden fruit one), apparently unaware of similar stories in other mythologies. He shows no recognition that there isn’t really a “Christian idea of free will,” since Christianity has seen bitter conflicts over the idea, right back to Augustine and Pelagius (who, by the way, disagreed on how to interpret the Genesis story). In the book, Dennett’s writing on free will is dismissed simply trying to reconcile a form of free will with materialism, to which I say, “so what?” Gray’s comment on Dennett fails to say anything interesting. Dennett’s views on free will sharply conflict with the Molinism that seems to dominate conservative philosophical theology. Dennett’s view that free will is compatible with determinism bear some vague resemblence to Calvinism, but I suspect he would have some choice words for Calvin if asked–I doubt Dennett thinks much of punishment for punishment’s sake. The clearest Christian influence on Dennett is that he’s trying to respond to popular worries about determinism from a mostly-Christian culture, but again, so what?

The book also contains a line about “a genuinely naturalistic philosophy would not start by assuming humans have attributes other animals do not.” Again bizarre: of course humans have attributes other animals do not, this is obvious, so why not start with it? The mistake is thinking that just because two things are made of the same kind of stuff, they cannot differ in attributes, something that turns out obviously false if you accept any of what common sense says about attributes (does the laptop I’m typing on share all its attributes with the table it’s sitting on?)

Gray further accuses the New Atheists of having “a project of universal conversion” and of thinking that “human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things” and that “one way of living… is right for everybody.” The first part is true in just the sense that atheists think atheism is true and generally think it’s good for people to believe true things, though see my qualifications on similar comments by Chris Hedges. But the second allegation is unsupported, and the third makes no sense except in the context of an assumption that religion has nothing to do with reality, and merely is a way of living.

Next up, the weird comment that “It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human.” Objection! Silliness! It would be a funny sort of humanism that affirmed everything that humans do, rather than trying to promote the good and suppress the bad.

But back to the nature of religion. Both the article and the book (p. 207) insist that religion and science serve different goals, and that belief only plays a big role in some strains of Christianity and Islam. Here, I admit that some of what we think of as “religion” are really peculiar pathologies of the Christo-Islamic tradition, and the New Atheists could be clearer about that, but as far as I can tell members of other religions do tend to believe seriously in things like miracles, and it makes sense to analyze all religions from that perspective.

Back to the future of religion: Gray attacks a short essay Dan Dennett wrote for Edge.org on the grounds that Dennett thought information technology would undermine religion, but Al-Queda and the Taliban use technology too. This is a non-sequitur. The point is that information technology helps rationalists more than it helps fundamentalists–that you can use it to broadcast propaganda, but propaganda works better when your opponents can’t use the same technology to tell the truth. Dennett also substantially qualifies his claims, acknowledging that a majority of the population may remain strongly religious, and limiting himself to claiming that religion will lose it’s current status.

Now we get an interesting insight into what Gray thinks religion is: religion, he tells us, is about myths that give our life meaning. One might think that here he means by “myth” an expression of values that no one takes literally. However, he accuses Dennett of dealing in myths, and in the book (p. 207) suggests that paranoid conspiracy theories are also myths that give life meaning! In other words, religion is no better than a paranoid fantasy or utopian delusion!

This is one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about liberal attempts to “defend” religion: they say incredibly insulting things without much concern for evidence, and act as if they’re being nice! (Note for fellow phil. lang. geeks: more evidence for how often the importance of what we say has little to do with the literal content!)

Also on the future of religion is Gray’s lazy butchering of Dawkins’ views on the evolution of religion. In _The God Delusion_, Dawkins argues that religion is probably a by-product of other things, and singles out the tendency to believe what our parents teach us. Gray responds by saying that, if there’s a universal tendency to religion, why bother trying to fight religion with education? This is one of those times where I must remind myself that not everyone can ace the reading comprehension section of the SATs.

In another embarrassing move, Gray insists that Hitler was an atheist. Never mind Hitler’s repeated invocations of God, Gray plays the “atheism is…” game well, saying that because Hitler was influenced by a lot of ideas that can be vaguely linked to atheism, he was, if not an atheist, a believer in something that “was a type of atheism.” Uh huh.

The main other issue of interest is Gray’s vague horror at the idea that the world might become a better place. For him, it is okay to like democracy, but to hope it will become universal is to throw your lot in with warmongers. Political liberalism, for Gray, is a militant faith that inherited its “militancy” from Christianity (p. 191). I can only respond to this with a look of puzzlement: the world is a much safer place for democracy than it was 70 years ago, maybe we’ll yet hit some disaster, but there’s a very good chance things will continue to improve without the need for ill-conceived wars. What Gray seems to abhor is not even certainty that the future will get better, but the mere possibility. What gives? I can’t read it as anything more than fashionable doom saying.

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